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Restaurants & Bars 7

Quick trip Dec 28-31, Aviary, Graham Elliot, Sable, Xoco, Girl/Goat

sarichardson | Jan 2, 201212:43 PM

Thought I'd send in some thoughts on the places we visited this past week. Thanks to the Board for helping us plan the trip and choose the restaurants. Maybe my write-up will help others staying in River North and looking for info.

We ate every breakfast here and got tortas (mushroom and cochinita pibil) to go on the train home. I think we ate everything on the breakfast menu, favorites were chilaquiles with extra avocado and the french toast. Also the churros. And the authentic hot chocolate. OK, we loved everything from here and the breakfasts helped hold us through the afternoons at culinarily devoid museum areas. I don't think it is over-hyped, it was terrific. The servers/seaters were friendly as well.

I wish I could wax eloquent on the food, but we had too many strong and excellent cocktails in the bar before dinner. The food was just right for bar food and service spot on as well. We had the smelt and shortrib sliders in the bar (hot and not dried out) and vegetable cakes and a burger in the restaurant. Not a miss among them. Service was extra fast in the restaurant, luckily. The bartender noticed a drink untouched and replaced it with something better for us. I had 3 different rum cocktails (one from the aperitif, one from the thinking menu, and a daiquiri) and my husband had 3 gin cocktails. We could have/should have each had 1.5 to 2 cocktails instead (wish there was a cocktail mini tasting menu). Since they give you a drink and a small pitcher of the remainder of the shaker, I would think that a couple could order 2 drinks and then switch and get the benefit of 4 drinks...

Maybe we were leery from the strong drinks the night before at Sable or just had a mismatch with the server, but we did not love the drinks here. The room ambiance was just what we were looking for, elegant and low lighting. But everyone else's drinks looked better than ours, and it was the sort of place where everyone else seems to be having more fun than you are. I should have asked more questions of the server to ensure we got something delightful. We got a 3-course drink tasting menu (quince, huckleberry, and horchata) and they were basically one-note sweet light drinks, not balanced among them like I might expect in a tasting menu. No fancy glassware and nothing unique or surprising. We had been seated first so hadn't had time to observe other tables. The bites were tiny tiny tiny. The foie gras and the scallop bites were outstanding, but the Wagyu and potato bites were just ok. I probably wouldn't return or maybe come with a group of 4 and later in the evening. Overall a bit disappointing since it was the only establishment of this owner we could get into (Next and Alinea closed and couldn't get reservations anyhow). We had better food and drinks for less than half the price at Sable.

Since we were starved after our Aviary visit, we stopped in here without a reservation and stood up at a table and ate the ham plate and chef's choice oysters. I don't usually like raw oysters much, but really enjoyed this plate. They were fresh, cold, and we could tell the difference between the different types. The ham plate with 3 kinds of thinly sliced ham was amazing. Would go here again, but the chatter at our communal table from others who had been several times was a bit annoyed about service and food mis-steps at other visits. We thought the service prompt, friendly, knowledgeable and maybe we ordered the best things, but we'd go back in an instant.

Girl and the Goat
We stood up here near the bar for a LONG time. We tried to sneak in before our reservation time (10:45) since we didn't want to eat that late. This place was hopping and we couldn't eat before our time, but I was impressed at how well the staff managed the room. This place had the best service of any place we visited -- perfect in terms of managing their reservations, friendliness and flexibility (they let us move order from the bar to the dining area), attention to detail, and non-instrusiveness. Bartender gave us ordering tips and her recommendation (pork ribs) was the single best thing we ate on the trip. We also got the shiso peppers (the second best thing we ate on the trip), and the octopus salad (good, nothing wrong with it). I wish we had more room, but those 3 things filled us up. I don't know how everyone else in the place was able to order 5-6 dished apiece. It made for a cheap dinner ($36 or something ridiculous like that) for 2.

Graham Elliot
We get out maybe once a year for a good tasting menu (in DC we've enjoyed Cityzen, Poste, and Komi) and wanted to have a fancy meal without stuffy surroundings in Chicago. After perusing many menus and seeing an amazing (and complicated-looking) menu created by Chef Elliot on epicurious, we thought Graham Elliot had the best sounding food combinations and booked in, though it hadn't appeared on anyone's top list here. What a mistake! Such teeny tiny portions, which was fine because except for 3 courses, they weren't very good. The pairings were disastrous, not one pairing enhanced the dish it was intended for. And both the wine pairings and the food were sweet. I love sweets. I love sweet in my main dishes. I hated this food. The venison was nearly raw and so chewy that I had to spit it out. It was served with oatmeal cookie crumbs that did nothing but make the whole dish tooth-achingly sweet. The fluke was bland, the lobster dish odd and unbalanced. The foie gras lollipop was returned with only one bite out of it (my husband thought the pop rocks gross and I actually thought the foie gross even though both of us had loved the foie with gingersnap the night before at Aviary). The plates were gorgeous, just not delicious. Best items -- the sunchoke soup with guancinale and the trumpet mushroom tortellini, and the cheese ice cream dessert course. If we had 4 times the volume of those 3 courses and decent wine, we would have felt happy. We were so disappointed we blew our one major dinner out for the year on this place. The service was goofy and it was obvious the server didn't know much about the wines beyond what she was told at the pre-service meeting. The dining room (Friday before NY Eve) was not too full, so it didn't appear the place was slammed, but the timing was off -- we were served the wine pairings sometimes 2 courses before needed. I guess the restaurant needed more time to work on this menu. We are actually easy-to-please diners and don't require much in the way of service, so I think a different diner would have been harder on the place than I'm being here. No one checked to see how things were, even after us not eating some of the tiny courses (and if the staff had tried the menu out beforehand, I can see why they didn't).

Frontera Grill (brunch)
We popped in here on Saturday to see if they could seat us since there was a line at Xoco. They could and did. I had the lamb cazuela, tres leches cake and husband had the al pastor tacos and bunuelos dessert (the most unusual item on the trip, it was delicious and exotic with a seedy crunch in the sauce and great pumpkin ice cream). The only miss was the tequila ice cream on the tres leches cake (the cake was 3 little perfect cakes with meringue topping). The horchata was richer than I've had before, but addictive. Faith in food after the awfulness of Graham Elliot the night before was restored.

Bodega No. 9
We had a forgettable eggplant flatbread and a surprisingly fresh and well-balanced salad (asparagus and cheese and arugula) here. Would go again for salad and a snack -- perfect location between the museums for us.

Beard Papa's
We had strawberry and vanilla cream puffs from here. I could eat 10 of them. I wish we had one here.

Garret's Popcorn
Now I know what the fuss is about. Had the Chicago mix. So rich, though, and addictive, that I don't crave it until our next trip...

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